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Jean Henri Dunant

founder of the Red Cross

Jean Henri Dunant

Jean Henri Dunant was born into a wealthy Geneva, Switzerland, family, on May 8, 1828. In addition to being wealthy, his family was religious, humanitarian, and civic-minded, and Jean Henri inherited every one of those qualities. In the first part of his life Dunant was engaged in religious activities and as a representative of the Young Men's Christian Association, traveling in France, Belgium and Holland.

Entering the business world at age 26, Dunant became a representative of the Compagnie genevoise des Colonies de Sétif in North Africa and Sicily. In 1858 he published his first book, Notice sur la Régence de Tunis (An Account of the Regency in Tunis), made up for the most part of travel observations but containing one chapter which he published separately in 1863 entitled L'Esclavage chez les musulmans et aux États-Unis d'Amérique (Slavery among the Mohammedans and in the United States of America).

The Battle of Solferino

In 1859, after serving his commercial apprenticeship, Dunant made himself president of the Financial and Industrial Company of Mons-Gémila Mills in Algeria, which he established to exploit a large tract of land he had acquired. Needing water rights to capitalize on his investment, he decided to take his case directly to Emperor Napoleon III, despite the fact that Napoleon was busy fighting a war at the time -- Napoleon was actually on a battlefield directing the French armies who, along with Italian forces, were trying to drive the Austrian army out of Italy. Dunant made his way to Napoleon's headquarters near the northern Italian town of Solferino, arriving there just in time to witness, and to participate in, the aftermath of one of the bloodiest battles of the nineteenth century -- a battle which left 40,000 dead and wounded on the battlefield. Dunant joined in the work of relief, sent his coach to bring supplies, and wrote to his friends in Switzerland for aid. The three days he spent at these tasks would change his life forever. (He never did see Napoleon.)

The Book

What Dunant had seen and experienced at Solferino had a profound effect on him, and he resolved to write an appeal against such terrifying inhumanity as he had witnessed. The result was Un Souvenir de Solferino (A Memory of Solferino), which was printed in Geneva in 1862. The book has three themes. The first is that of the battle itself. Although he had not witnessed the battle itself, he collected eyewitness accounts and other information that allowed him to write an accurate description of it. The second is his own eyewitness account of the deserted battlefield and of the makeshift hospitals and the heroic efforts to care for the wounded in the small town of Castiglione. The closing pages he devoted to the questions and proposals that eventually grew into the Red Cross movement -- that the nations of the world should form relief societies to provide care for the wartime wounded, and that each society should be sponsored by a governing board composed of the nation's leading figures, should appeal to everyone to volunteer, should train these volunteers to aid the wounded on the battlefield and to care for them until they recovered.

The Move Toward Organization

Dunant personally mailed copies of his book to influential people throughout Europe, many of whom took to his ideas almost immediately. One of the readers of his book was Gustav Moynier, the chairman of the Geneva Society for Public Welfare. Moynier put Dunant's proposals before his society on February 9, 1863, and then became the chief force that would shape Dunant's vision into an organization. The Society approved the appointment of a committee of five men to continue work on Dunant's proposals. The "Permanent International Committee," which Moynier had dubbed it, was chaired by General Dufour, Switzerland's leading soldier; the secretary was Dunant; the other members were Moynier and and two physicians, Dr. Appia and Dr. Maunoir. These men decided to call an international conference in Geneva.

The International Conference of 1863

The international conference that met in Geneva on October 26, 1863, was attended by delegates favorably disposed toward the proposals of the committee. In all, 36 people attended, including representatives from 14 European countries. The conference had two important results: It increased the influence of the organizing committee; secondly, it produced resolutions for consideration by governments and possible approval by a diplomatic conference. At its final session the conference declared "that Monsieur Henri Dunant ... and the Geneva Public Welfare Society ... have deserved well of humanity and earned ... universal thanks."

The Diplomatic Conference of 1864

The diplomatic conference met in Geneva on August 8, 1864, with 24 delegates attending from 16 governments. The United States sent observers, who made their influence felt in favor of the proposed treaty through informal talks with the delegates. Drawing on the experience of the United States Sanitary Commission during the Civil War, the American observers showed that a volunteer organization could work effectively with the government in accordance with the principles Dunant had proposed. On August 22, 1864, twelve nations signed an international treaty, commonly known as the Geneva Convention, agreeing to guarantee neutrality to sanitary personnel, to expedite supplies for their use, and to adopt a special identifying emblem -- a red cross on a white background. Dr. Appia, of the founding committee, wore this symbol on his arm for the first time during the Prussian-Danish War of 1864. In time the whole movement became known as the Red Cross, and the organizing committee took the name of the International Committee of the Red Cross. (The Red Cross movement is officially known as the Red Crescent in Muslim nations, and its official emblem is a red crescent on a white background.)

Dunant had seen the ideas he proposed become an international treaty, but his work was not yet finished. He approved the efforts to extend the scope of the Red Cross to cover naval personnel in wartime, and in peacetime to alleviate the hardships caused by natural catastrophes. In 1866 he wrote a brochure called the Universal and International Society for the Revival of the Orient, setting forth a plan to create a neutral colony in Palestine. In 1867 he produced a plan for a publishing venture called an International and Universal Library, to be composed of the greatest masterpieces of all time. In 1872 he convened a conference to establish the Alliance universelle de l'order et de la civilisation, which was to consider the need for an international convention on the handling of prisoners of war and for the settling of international disputes by courts of arbitration rather than by war.

The Decline of Dunant

Dunant had spent a great deal of strength, time, and money on the promotion of his humane ideas. He had never gained the water rights for which he had first gone to Solferino, and by 1867 he was bankrupt, had resigned from the committee, had exiled himself from Geneva, and had begun wandering from city to city. He had no remaining circle of friends, no regular employment, and his only certain income was a small allowance from his family. He eventually stopped in Heiden, Switzerland, where he made some new friends. One of them ran a hospital (asylum, rest home), which Dunant voluntarily entered in 1892, and in which he spent the last 18 years of his life.

The Rediscovery of Dunant

In 1895, a young Swiss journalist learned that Dunant was living at the hospital in Heiden and got permission to interview him. The resulting article was widely printed, and Dunant began receiving messages of respect and honor, as well as some gifts of money. In 1901 he was one of two recipients of the first Nobel Peace Prize. From that time on he did not lack for attention, and he stayed in touch with the outside world as much as his health permitted.

Jean Henri died at Heiden on October 30, 1910. Upon his death, there was no funeral ceremony, no mourners, no cortege. In accordance with his wishes he was carried to his grave "like a dog." Dunant had not spent any of the prize monies he had received. He bequeathed some legacies to those who had cared for him in the village hospital, endowed a "free bed" that was to be available to the sick among the poorest people in the village, and left the remainder to philanthropic enterprises in Norway and Switzerland.

WEB SOURCE
The Nobel Foundation www.nobelprize.org

SEE ALSO
Nobel Peace Prize

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This page was last updated on May 01, 2017.